Plumbing the Depths

by Kenneth B. Lourie

When it comes to home improvement and/or home repairs - what do I know? As has been written throughout my nearly five years of imposing my frustrations and anxieties on you, my regular readers, the answer to the above question is - very little. In fact, the sum total of my knowledge on these subjects, one could fit on the head of a pen, typically like the ones a plumber might use to write up the repair order after the day’s work is done.

Nevertheless, even in my uninformed homeowner’s state of denial, I must acknowledge that there are certain problems, plumbing in particular, that cannot be ignored (believe me, I’ve tried): dripping faucets, clogged drains (in sinks or tubs), running toilets and of course, toilets that are out of order. Eventually, the call to a professional has to be made and the time taken off from work.

To maximize the time off from work, I wish there was a way - or plumber who would tell me - in advance, over the phone, exactly what the repair was going to cost. Granted, the problem could be more or less complicated than I describe, but if all I needed was to “snake a drain,” “replace a mixing valve” or connect a water purifier, as a few examples, is it reasonable for me, the paying customer, to obtain a price that has some relationship to reality, and one, quite honestly, that I could use as a means for comparison?

For me, money doesn’t grow on trees, although I do realize the dollar denominations are made of paper, so I try to be cost-effective whenever possible. And not having to guess/estimate or hope/pray would go a long way toward helping me allocate precious resources, especially if the repairs I’m calling about are identical to ones my house has experienced previously.

Certainly I don’t know much, but what little I do know comes from experience. Which leads me to a recent plumbing bill I paid: $109.24 for a “Moen shower repair” and of particular interest, a $150 charge to snake my bathtub drain.

Last year, with a different plumber, the same snaking cost only $75. (I know - why didn’t I call the $75 plumber? Because during last year’s visit, that plumber accidentally turned off the water in my house and couldn’t figure out how to turn it on again. As a result he had to call for backup, so I wasn’t confident in his abilities.)

With respect to the shower head repair, my question is - was the repair more costly than simply letting the water drip? How much extra, over the quarterly WSSC billing I pay, would the wasted water have cost? And how many quarters would have to be billed at that increased amount before I use up my $109.24, theoretically speaking?

On to the clogged bathtub drain. I know, when I’m standing in six inches of water that’s also standing, that the drain is clogged and needs to be Drano-ed. When that attempt inevitably fails, the plumber is called. And, of course, there’s a price to pay for a professional in-house repair, a repair that takes maybe 20 minutes. (I know it! The plumber knows it!) And that 20 minutes includes the plumber carrying his tools (“what tools?”) in and out of the house. As such, can’t I know what that price is going to be?

The underlying problem is, once I’ve committed the time to be at home for an estimate (and subsequent probable repair), I feel trapped, almost into saying yes. I’m there, the plumber’s there, and the water is most definitely still there (in the tub I mean). And when the estimate is double what it was last year, I want to say no, but it seems impractical, all things considered, to delay any further, so I say go ahead.

My question, my curiosity is - do plumbers know that the homeowner’s answer is likely to be yes, no matter their price? Or should I have, as my plumber calmly suggested, called another plumber and received a second estimate?


Quite frankly, who has the time, and in my experience, who has the patience?

Lourie is a regionally syndicated columnist who resides in Burtonsville, MD.